Sally Bercow’s crime is being a woman

by Simone Webb

Read this list of criticisms levelled at a woman: she expresses opinions too stridently, especially on twitter; she slept around and drank too much when she was younger; she should be “reined in” by her husband; and her voice is apparently too high pitched.

Although this could be a list from another century (apart from the line about twitter) it is actually from the twenty-first, and all aimed at one woman. She is a Labour activist, erstwhile member of Ed Balls’ leadership campaign team, and the victim of countless attacks from the right wing press. Oh, and she’s married to John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons.

People in the public eye will always receive a certain amount of vitriol, but Sally Bercow seems to get more than her fair share. The Daily Mail is the primary offender: Sally is “bizarre”, “swivel-eyed”, “confessed to one-night stands”, “[indulged] in casual sex”.

And that’s only the press: Conservative politicians, according to the Daily Mail, have asked John Bercow to “rein in” his wife, while Nadine Dorries MP has said that he ought to “tell her to pipe down”.

This level of abuse is baffling. Furthermore, it is dangerous. We cannot live in a world in which a woman is attacked for expressing her opinion, no matter to whom she may be married. Her husband’s job is politically neutral, but that cannot and should not lay any obligation onto Sally Bercow to keep quiet about politics. Whether she’s tweeting humorously about the Tory-Liberal government, or speaking at a conference fringe event (“rambling and bizarre” – the Mail again) she has an absolute right to do so. A woman’s right to speak is not restricted by her husband’s job.

Even more disturbing is the implication in many articles that her “past full of…one night stands” (the Times this time) somehow makes her unsuitable to seek public office. Commenters on the Mail articles have referred to her “disgraceful past”. The insinuation that a woman having had sex means she shouldn’t become an MP is confusing at best. It brings to mind Victorian ideas of chastity and women being ruined.

And there is clear gender disparity here: when Nick Clegg made his infamous remark about having slept with up to 30 women, he was mocked for it, but not once was it suggested that it made him unfit to be an MP, or Liberal Democrat party leader. Ditto when it comes to her “binge-drinking”. Somebody who is now a teetotaller being condemned for drinking a bottle or two of wine in her past is nothing short of bizarre. There are plenty of MPs in Parliament now who enjoy a drink.

While it would be wrong to attribute the adverse criticism of Sally Bercow entirely to sexism and misogyny, this makes up a large part of its root. The terms used to describe her, such as “tiresome blonde” (Daily Mail commenter) are not ones which would be applied readily to a male politician. When younger, Michael Heseltine was nick-named Tarzan for his blond hair: it was a positive attribute, rather than a cause for scorn.

Nor is this treatment of women in politics limited to Sally Bercow. If they aren’t attacked for expressing their views firmly – as Cherie Blair was – they are trivialised and demeaned by focus on their clothing or appearance rather than their politics. The obsession the Telegraph had with Theresa May’s shoes following the election was a perfect example: never mind that she’s the second female home secretary, clearly her footwear is the most important thing about her.

Michelle Obama, a highly successful lawyer, mainly appears in the press when she wears a particularly nice dress, or her arms are toned. If a woman makes no secret of her feminism or dedication to equal rights, like Harriet Harman, she will be mocked for it – one need only see how frequently Harman is referred to as “Harperson” in the press and online.

Too many people are unwilling to acknowledge the sexism tainting UK politics. There seems to be an assumption that because we have moved on from the 1960s, when Barbara Castle was the only woman in the cabinet, everything is alright. That is not the case. Over 45 years later, there are only four women in the cabinet, only three of whom have an electoral mandate. There are 23 people in the cabinet.

This is not wholly the prime minister’s fault: the Conservatives have only 49 female MPs, and the Lib Dems only eight. The problem is that the way women are treated when they enter the political sphere – as demonstrated by the vitriol heaped on Sally Bercow – is liable to discourage them from standing for Parliament. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the gender disparity between criticism of men and criticism of women enters people’s minds.

The message is clear: if you stand up for your opinions, you are a swivel-eyed mad-woman. If you like clothes, they will be the focus, not your politics. If you  wear the wrong clothes, you will be dismissed as frumpy. If you’re married to someone in the public eye, you will never escape his shadow. If you’ve had sex in the past, you’re unsuitable for public office.

Changing this bigotry will be difficult. The first step is admitting that it exists.

Simone Webb is a Labour activist who blogs here.

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28 Responses to “Sally Bercow’s crime is being a woman”

  1. Michael St George says:

    On its own putative terms this argument is utter tripe, compounded by its rather transparent attempt to play the sexism card in an effort to obscure its intrinsic deficiencies.

    There are two principal reasons why Sally Bercow attracts such criticism, neither of which gets a mention in the article’s desperation to attribute the motives of her detractors to misogyny alone.

    The first is her apparent conviction that her views have some special merit over and above those of the remainder of the population and are therefore more deserving of hearing in their own right: whereas we all know that the only reason she gets an airing at all is because she just happens to be married to that preposterous little twerp Mr Squeaker. Although I wouldn’t dream of voting Labour in a million years, you do have female advocates who, while fundamentally misguided and wrong, are nevertheless far more articulate and intelligent but remain virtually unknown through not being self-aggrandising loudmouths.

    The second reason is the potential harm she does to the entire institution of Parliament by repeatedly jeopardising the neutrality of the Speaker (admittedly doubtful under the present incumbent), and demeaning the office of Speaker. The proper functioning of our parliamentary democracy requires the speaker of the legislature to be, and be seen to be, utterly impartial, but she endangers that impartiality by deliberately capitalising on her position as his wife to procure a wider audience which otherwise she certainly would not justify in her own right. Which, incidentally, comprehensively negates any argument that she should not be restricted by virtue of her husband’s position. Furthermore, although her past, whatever it is or isn’t, is undoubtedly her own affair, neither she nor any of her apologists can complain when she displays such a lack of discretion about it almost to the extent of revelling in its publicity potential.

    Those are the reasons she rightly gets criticised: the article might have had more value had it discussed and analysed them, rather than defaulting to the automatic parroting of Gramscian cultural marxist claptrap about gender-prejudice victimhood and prudish disapproval of any colourful history.

  2. Jane says:

    I am always sympathetic to any woman in politics. My only concern about Sally Bercow is the fact that she is courted because of her marriage. She does have to be extra careful in avoiding issues relating to her husband’s role. The matter of Phil Woolas is a point in question as it directly involved her husband’s job.

    I do wonder if the House of Commons has improved too. It was not many years ago that I read about the appalling sexist behaviour towards women members away from the cameras. As to press reporting – it beggars belief. The press has totally screwed up many able women until such time as they come to terms with the bile directed at them. Cherie Blair is a case in point which continues to this day with doctored photographs particularly in the Mail. No acknowledgement of her abilities, superb intellect, job mother role as well as charitable work. Knowing that every item of clothing, hair and weight is being assessed must be pretty awful. Is it any wonder that these women feel the need to have assistance with their image. I do think it is time that we worked to get rid of the negative sterotyping particularly from some sections of the press.

  3. Hannah says:

    Absolutely agree! All this nonsense needs to stop! Great article!!!

  4. Simone Webb says:

    Michael – thanks for your thoughtful reply. I never would claim that the reason for Sally’s criticism is “misogyny alone”: that indeed would be extreme simplification. It’s very rare that anything is due to one factor. However, the article was aimed at discussing misogyny in politics, opening with the example of Sally Bercow. Not everything can be considered in one article.

    “…apparent conviction her views have some special merit over and above those of the remainder of the population”. You mean…like the majority of people who get involved in politics, male or female, or married to the Speaker? I’m not sure how many self-deprecating people who don’t value their own opinion get involved in politics at all.

    ” articulate and intelligent but remain virtually unknown through not being self-aggrandising loudmouths”. So, women are allowed to be in politics, as long as they’re not loudmouths? What are they supposed to do, write their opinions down on a piece of paper before hurrying away again?

    On your second point: I don’t know if I’d say that Sally Bercow does capitalise on her husband’s position. The media probably are more interested in her because of it, but I can hardly blame her if the Mail are more interested in what she has to say than in what I have to say. And she does not jeopardise his neutrality! She’s a separate person from him, and no one seriously imagines that because she has strongly opinionated Labour views he has become an obsessive Marxist!

    “lack of discretion about it”: Wait, what? Women need to be discreet about their past? I’m not even sure what point you’re trying to make here…

    “Gramscian cultural marxist claptrap about gender-prejudice victimhood and prudish disapproval of any colourful history…” Oh, right. I’m afraid I find neither Gramsci nor Marx to be claptrap (although I disagree with them both on many points), and gender-prejudice does exist on an institutional level, something you might not be in a position to experience.

    Jane – I agree, I was made uneasy about the Phil Woolas comment, which occured after this article was actually written.
    And yes, the press reporting of women is shocking…

  5. Chris says:

    @Michael St George

    Thanks for provide the Daily Mail parody, do you have other characters or are you a one trick pony?


    Bang on! Female politicians are attacked ferociously by the right wing press, their voice is too high pitched or some other shit. The argument that Sally only gets attention because she’s the speakers wife is simplistic, she wouldn’t get any air time at all if she never said anything – who was the last speakers wife to ever be even mentioned in the press? She gets attention because she has opinions and expresses them.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Sadly, I am afraid that Sally Bercow has blown it. She could have been a good Labour MP, however, she used her hubby and that doesn’t help. Sally, Nadine Dorries and Harriett take a huge amount of abuse via the internet and one has to wonder why? All three are obviously clever, sexy, articulate women with very different views. All three compete in a male world and whatever obstacles are thrown in their way in terms of negative press, they keep on going. Of all the female politicians we are lucky to have all three.

  7. angus says:

    you guys have got to realise how badly these pushy,bullying,chippy women look for the labour party.

    they get away with far to much and are very bad for votes.

  8. Terry Bull says:

    The thing about La Bercow is that, quite frankly, she’s an insufferable woman, who is clearly using her (equally insufferable) husband to make a name for herself. The Bercows are clearly a match made in Heaven! But this correspondent finds the whole thing very odd. Not that the Speaker of the House gives his wife carte blanche to tout herself around as a political spokesperson (not very good one at that), but that she does it as an opponent of the Party he represents. I’m a Conservative, but I have lots of friends in opposition parties, and would have no problem if my partner was Labour – I enjoy hearty, honest debate. But if I was an elected representatve I would be very uncomfortable if my partner then used it as an opportunity to raise her political profile, against the Party I represented.
    All in all, the Bercows are the personification of The Odd Couple!!

  9. Alan Douglas says:

    I deplore Sally Bercow. So you would accuse me of being sexist.

    How then do you explain one of my enthusiasms, who IS a woman, namely one Margaret T ?

    I don’t suppose it has anything to do with their relative ethical levels, ability and solid achievement, has it ?

    Do grow up, and perhaps even join the real world.

    Alan Douglas

  10. Terry Bull says:

    By the way, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean La Bercow is using her husband in a manipulative way (i’m sure they’re blissfully happy), but using her husband’s profile to raise her own. If her husband was still an obscure backbencher she wouldn’t have got a look in.

  11. Simone Webb says:

    Chris and Hannah – thank you!

    Stephanie – I agree with what you say apart from this: “She could have been a good Labour MP, however, she used her hubby and that doesn’t help”. I genuinely don’t believe that Sally has done this. Being married to the Speaker, the press are bound to take more interest in her views than otherwise; all she does is express them. I wonder how she could express her views in such a way as not to be accused of capitalising on her husband’s status?

    Angus – “pushy,bullying,chippy women”. Ta, you’ve completely proved my point about sexism in British politics.

    Terry – see what I’ve said above. How could Sally express her opinions in such away as not to be accused of capitalising on her husband’s status?

    “But if I was an elected representatve I would be very uncomfortable if my partner then used it as an opportunity to raise her political profile, against the Party I represented.” Why?

    Alan -*sigh* I have never said that everyone who dislikes Sally B is sexist, although when a man says it who shows no signs of recognising his male privilege, I have to wonder.

    “How then do you explain one of my enthusiasms, who IS a woman, namely one Margaret T ?” I expect you’re a Tory?

  12. Jeremy Poynton says:

    No. It is because

    1. She is a media creation who believes her own press

    2. She has nothing to say about anything

    3. Regardless of 2, she can’t shut up.

  13. Simone Webb says:

    Jeremy – 1. She’s a media creation? What does that actually mean? She’s always seemed to be a living breathing person to me whenever I’ve met her.

    2. Yes, she does. And she says it.

    3. Why should she?

  14. Meagaidh says:

    Hang on a minute, Angus – you say ‘you guys have got to realise how badly these pushy,bullying,chippy women look for the labour party.

    they get away with far to much and are very bad for votes.’

    Whereas it’s OK for pushy, bullying, chippy men?

    I’m afraid your views demonstrate how far we have yet to travel to achieve parity and equality. *sigh*

  15. Diane says:

    The comments here have proven your point quite well. Male privilege goes completely unchecked in British politics most of the time.

    People who mock Harriet always get a wry eyebrow from me. It’s like, if you can’t make your point without resorting to misogyny then I don’t want to hear it.

  16. Simone Webb says:

    Meagaidh and Diane – yeah, the comments I’ve been getting from men here have been making me facepalm consistently. Men everywhere (not just in politics) are completely failing to recognise their privilege and power imbalance. A lot of people denying that sexism still meaningfully exists are also men – men who don’t have to experience sexual harassment and derision on a daily basis.

  17. andrew says:

    Though Sally was great on HIGNFY. She’s her own woman – fact she has differing political views from her old man is refreshing. Many Tories don’t like the speaker and like her less because she is not a doormat. 2 good reasons to like her even more!

  18. Robert Eve says:

    Both Bercows are hopeless – male and female.

  19. Simone Webb says:

    Andrew – I still haven’t seen her on HIGNFY! Need to activate i-player, I think…

    Robert – why do you say that?

  20. I must say I’m in total agreement, a few points which I really want to emphasise would be:

    One: That her right to say what she likes shouldn’t be impeded by her husband. Marrying or, indeed, simply dating someone doesn’t mean you suddenly merge into one person. The neutrality of the Speaker is the responsibility of the Speaker – not his or her spouse.

    Two: The media’s obsession with women’s appearances. It’s no wonder that women don’t want to come forward as candidates when they know that they will be judged, not just on their intellect and ability to do the job, but also – and perhaps more closely – on their dress sense and how they apply their make up. (And woe and behold any female in the public eye who snubs such artifice.)

    Not to mention the flack women get for the injury their public office might do their children and partners. It’s mothers who are looked on coldly for not being home by bath time.

    I also think we, as a party, really need to fight against the idea that promiscuity somehow makes women – but not men – unsuitable public figures. It’s institutionalised all over.

  21. Simone Webb says:

    Jess – everything that you’ve said, a hundred times over.

  22. mattc says:

    ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’

    Sorry folks but it is because she is so damm irritating, nothing sinister.

  23. Simone Webb says:

    Matt – you’re missing the point. Why do you find her irritating?

  24. haydoni says:

    The fact that she has any media attention is baffling. She’s a nobody.

  25. Mark Wallace says:

    Criticisms 1, 3 and 4 were all levelled at Margaret Thatcher by her critics on the Left – can we look forward to a celebration of her groundbreaking achievements from Labour Uncut?

    Sally Bercow isn’t criticised for being a woman, she’s criticised because she’s an irrelevance.

  26. Simone Webb says:

    Mark – good point!

  27. annie says:

    I think Sally Bercow was maybe not the best example to use – mostly because she gets an unusual amount of press simply for being the Speaker’s wife, not for holding political office. Plus, for reasons completely extraneous to her gender, I (and certainly others) find her irritating, and it seems to me that the causes she chooses to champion and the manner in which she champions them is sometimes baffling – and I speak as someone in sympathy with the Labour Party.

    Your case might have been stronger with Yvette Cooper – a woman who’s clearly highly capable, canny, and intelligent while simultaneously low-key. Yes, she’s married to a high-profile politician, but she has very much so made her own name for herself, and is a very serious figure in her own right. I think it’s fair to say she owes her position to no one but herself. How can more like her be encouraged into politics?

  28. Richard says:

    Good piece Simone, further validated by the self-subverting ad feminam comments.

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